Ag scientist's career marked by contrasts

18:48, Jul 24 2014
Malcolm Macfarlane gets up close and personal with highland cow Heaven on his Inglewood property.
GOOD GIRL: Malcolm Macfarlane gets up close and personal with highland cow Heaven on his Inglewood property.

Agricultural science has provided a Taranaki man with a career marked by contrasts.

There's been the ice, snow and dry valleys of Antarctica and the desert of Saudi Arabia. Malcolm Macfarlane has also worked for the New Zealand Fire Service and in the hillcountry of the North Island's East Coast, where he's undertaking forage research.

Although he lives in Inglewood, where wife Rosie Mabin is Inglewood High School's principal, he's a scientist for Hastings-based On-Farm Research.

The company is leading the three-year East Coast Future Farming Systems project to develop strategies for sheep and beef farmers that will increase on-farm productivity in the face of drought. About 18 months ago he joined On-Farm Research, which operates the 200-hectare Poukawa Research Station, near Hastings, formerly operated by AgResearch.

Macfarlane is also helping establish an agribusiness service hub in Saudi Arabia to showcase New Zealand technical services, farming systems, animal health, on-farm equipment, genetics and farm expertise.

The $6 million New Zealand Government project is providing a demonstration farm comprising 15 centre-pivot irrigators, a feed mill, a sheep breeding operation, a lamb and cattle finishing feedlot, and processing facility.


He's been there twice already and will make another two trips this year. "I enjoy working where it's a wee bit difficult," he said.

The contrasts of fire and ice shaped his career before the On-Farm Research position.

Not only has Macfarlane made 55 trips to Antarctica, where he's spent more than 1500 days, he was also the Fire Service operations data manager for nine years.

His first trip to Antarctica was in 1983, when he was seconded from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to the Antarctic Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to be summer leader at New Zealand's Vanda Station. It was on the shores of Lake Vanda in the dry Wright Valley but it no longer exists.

Three years before that appointment, he had completed a Master of Agricultural Science degree at Lincoln University. Macfarlane said although his degree was unusual for a scientist working in Antarctica, it gave him a broad understanding of plants, soils, water and chemistry.

The station's staff of four hosted visitors, supported scientific research and ran a meteorological programme. Staff collected water samples from the inland-flowing Onyx River and Lake Vanda in the first season the river was continuously sampled from the day it started flowing in October.

In the 1987-88 summer Macfarlane was operations manager and senior scientific officer at Scott Base and officer-in-charge of 13 staff in the 1988 winter. He returned from the ice to work at Antarctic Division where he became the New Zealand Antarctic Programme's operations manager and New Zealand's senior representative at Scott Base over five summers.

After leaving the Antarctic programme in 1995, he worked as a guide and lecturer on tourist ships visiting the Ross Sea and the sub- Antarctic islands.

He retains an interest in the region, regularly undertaking voluntary work on the Falkland Islands for the Sub-Antarctic Foundation for Ecosystems Research. The foundation owns two small islands, which were previously farmed and which it's restoring as a habitat for wildlife that includes sea lions, penguins, geese, and countless other bird species.

He also monitors the impact of tourism on the Falkland Islands and on South Georgia for government agencies.

"I like doing things where people consider it too hard to do things. It's an extension of being in the hills."

Back in New Zealand, Macfarlane spends two weeks a month in Hawke's Bay on the east coast foraging project, which is funded by Beef +Lamb New Zealand and the Hawke's Bay Regional Council. The project now in its final year.

He said one of the aims of the research, carried out on properties from Masterton, including Castlepoint Station, to north of Napier, was early finishing of lambs for the export Christmas market and finishing hoggets to better weights for mating.

"We're trying to produce a lot of good quality feed over late winter and early summer."

With better feed, lambs would not have to be sold on the store market.

"We're looking at ways to improve the flow of metabolisable energy on sub-tropical properties by providing more and better quality feed."

The research includes the evaluation of Australian annual clovers like arrowleaf and persian that are adapted to warm winters and dry summers and that have been identified as having potential on the East Coast.

The research has already established the clovers suit some locations and not others. Although arrowleaf and persian clovers are both high producers, arrowleaf is intolerant of wet feet and persian can withstand water-logged soil, but needs mild winters.

At present he's testing a 40ha crop of dairy-type clovers with plantain, weighing sheep and gathering production data in winter and spring.

Last year's data showed the crop generated an extra $1700/ha, after lambs grew 310g a day compared with the average East Coast figure of 200-250g.

Macfarlane said plantain, like lucerne, required careful management. "You need small paddocks and large mobs which can be moved every one to three days. You have to check the paddock every day.

He said 30 per cent of his work was presenting information to farm discussion groups and field days, which were attended by as many as 120 farmers.

Taranaki Daily News